In burst of primaries, close eye is on several high-profile races

Runoffs could decide party control in Congress

September 08, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - In the biggest burst of primaries of the election season, voters in 11 states will choose candidates for Congress, Senate and governor on Tuesday in contests that could determine the political future of Janet Reno, the former attorney general, and Republican Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, who is facing an intense challenge from within his party.

More than 50 contests are taking place across the country. But much of the strident, last-minute campaigning has been muted by the commemoration of Sept. 11. Democratic and Republican strategists are closely watching the outcome of about a dozen races that have been termed critical in setting the stage for the general election.

More than anything, the contests that will play out Tuesday are notable for the number of nationally known figures running in local races. That includes three former members of the administration of former President Bill Clinton. (A fourth Clinton alumnus, Andrew M. Cuomo, quit the Democratic primary for governor in New York in the face of polls suggesting he was heading for a trouncing by H. Carl McCall. Cuomo's name remains on the ballot.)

In Florida, Reno, who was attorney general under Clinton, is in what is turning out to be an unexpectedly difficult three-way primary for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who is the president's brother.

A number of Democrats said that Reno, who had once appeared to be a favorite, given her stature and name recognition, could lose to Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer.

Most polls show Jeb Bush to be strong going into September. But Democrats argued that should McBride score an unexpected victory over someone of Reno's stature, it could recast the race, drawing attention and campaign contributions to McBride, and giving him a boost against Bush.

As a result, the prospect of a Reno loss has reignited hopes of Democrats that Jeb Bush's campaign for a second term could be complicated by the fallout from the circumstances of his brother's disputed victory in Florida in the 2000 presidential race.

In New Hampshire, there is a strong possibility an incumbent senator will not even make it to the general election. Smith is facing a tough challenge from Rep. John E. Sununu, the son of the former New Hampshire governor, and a number of polls suggest that Sununu is in the lead.

This is an outcome that, similarly, could set the tone for the general election campaign, and this is one Senate race that is being watched extremely closely here given the one-seat edge held by Democrats in the Senate.

The winner of the Republican primary will face Jeanne Shaheen, the Democrat, who is stepping down as governor to run for the Senate. Democrats said Shaheen would have a better shot against Smith. He is seen as vulnerable because of his conservative views and because he once quit and rejoined the Republican Party in an episode that even New Hampshire Republicans describe as embarrassing. But the contest seems likely to be competitive no matter who wins the primary.

The voting on Tuesday should also put in place another battle between two high-profile candidates in North Carolina to replace Jesse Helms, who is retiring from the Senate. The fight there could be between Elizabeth Dole, the former leader of the Red Cross, and Erskine Bowles, who was chief of staff for Clinton. Dole and Bowles are in crowded primaries: Dole seems almost certain to win hers; Democrats say Bowles, who has heavily outspent his opponents, is likely, though not certain, to win.

The contests on Tuesday should also set the lineup for potentially close races for governor in Arizona, where Gov. Jane Dee Hull, a Republican, was barred from seeking re-election because of term limits, and Wisconsin, where Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican, left his seat to become President Bush's secretary of health and human services.

Thompson was succeeded by his lieutenant governor, Scott McCallum, who appears to be in a shaky position going into the fall election. Among the Democrats who are competing for the nomination are Rep. Thomas M. Barrett; Jim Doyle, the state attorney general; and Kathleen Falk, the Dane County executive.

In Arizona, Janet Napolitano, the state attorney general, appears poised to win the Democratic nomination in a crowded primary. Democrats and Republicans describe her as a strong candidate.

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